Lord March had already lived a colourful life by the age of 17. He almost died at the wheel of his mother’s car, dropped out of Eton and then went to work with legendary film-maker Stanley Kubrick.
It was hardly a promising start but today Charles Gordon-Lennox (he became Lord March in 1989) is 59 and runs one of the most successful family estates in the country. Goodwood, in West Sussex, is 12,000 acres of sporting wonderland; a thriving business based around horseracing, motorsport, golf and aviation.
Each June or July he runs the Goodwood Festival of Speed, featuring a difficult annual hill climb requiring the technical expertise of expert drivers, attracting crowds of around 100,000 on each of its three days.
In September comes the Goodwood Revival, an extravaganza of classic cars where drivers often dress up to match the era (1948 to 1966).
However, rather than resting on his laurels, Lord March believes he has just come up with another, money-spinning winner: Ultimate Driving. The new activity allows members of the public to drive on Goodwood’s famous racetrack in a fleet of BMWs, or explore 32 miles of off-road tracks around the estate.
Is it in keeping with the coveted Goodwood brand – or just a funfair ride for petrolheads? We visited him to find out more.
What was the idea behind Ultimate Driving?
I grew up driving around this estate and have wanted to offer some kind of driving experience which allowed people to share that. The Goodwood Circuit was famous after the Second World War: it was built on the site of a Spitfire airfield and everybody raced here, from Stirling Moss to Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill.
The circuit and stands have all been restored, so it’s now a real thrill turning through famous corners like Woodcote and Lavant. You are driving in the tyre marks of legends.
What else does it offer?
The tracks we use for the off-roading are all through ancient woodland. The scenery is incredible and the driving challenging. It’s easy to get lost in a matter of minutes but you are always with an experienced tutor.
There’s a Rolls-Royce Wraith to ferry people from one activity to another. We even have a real-life butler serving tea at one of the refreshment camps.
Did you imagine how successful Goodwood would be when you took over managing the estate 19 years ago?
Absolutely not. Goodwood House was in a state of disrepair when I took it over from my father, and the traditional activities of farming and woodland management were haemorrhaging money at an alarming rage.
My father had done a fantastic job but we were in a lot of trouble. The horseracing was going well but that was about it. I needed to find something that would generate some revenue quickly. We had a lot of assets but not much cash to invest in a new venture.
What was your business plan for the estate back then?
I didn’t have one! I’m not an accountant but I knew I had to find something that didn’t require a huge amount of capital.
That was when we came up with the idea of the Festival of Speed, in 1993. Originally I wanted to restore the race circuit and put on an historic event there but we didn’t have a racing permit to do it. So I held the festival in the grounds around the house and we used the historic Goodwood Hill Climb to race classic cars.
How did you fund the business?
We didn’t borrow any money and replied on our three sponsors, Aston Martin, Honda and Bonhams.
Fortunately, that first event didn’t cost a lot of money to stage and we grew bigger and bigger every year.
What was the first year of the Festival of Speed like?
I had no idea what would happen, especially as we clashed with the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France.
But I got up to go to the bathroom at 5am that first morning, pulled back the curtains and saw thousands of people starting to flood in early.
I thought ‘My God, we’ve done it!’ and it was the start of the most incredible weekend. Twenty-five thousand people came to that first event – now we have to cap it at 150,000 and can pick and choose our sponsors.
Do all your ideas work at Goodwood?
Not always. We ran an event called Vintage at Goodwood [in 2010], which was the idea of fashion designer Wayne Hemingway. It was a great idea, celebrating fashion, music, film, art and design.
What we discovered is that music is a difficult business model, because the content is very expensive and there are large infrastructure costs. In the end, we incorporated the best features of the event into the Goodwood Revival, which worked very well.
Would Goodwood have survived without your passion for cars?
I’m sure it would but motoring is very much my thing – despite a terrible accident here when I was 16. I borrowed the keys to my mother’s MG 1100, and took a friend up the Hill Climb route. I went into a corner to fast, hit some gravel and crashed off the road.
The front wheel ended up pinned to the back door and I was in hospital for four months with a broken femur. I think my mother was just happy that we were both still alive.
Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
My father taught me a lot and Goodwood has survived because of him. He was 67 when I took it over from him, at the age of 40. I know how demanding running an estate is and what he achieved in doing so.
When I worked for Stanley Kubrick when I was 17, he taught me not to compromise. It doesn’t matter how much something costs, or how long it takes, the end result makes it worth it.